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Jet Li was born on 26 April 1963. He is a Chinese film actor, film producer, martial artist, and retired Wushu champion who was born in Beijing. He is a naturalized Singaporean citizen.
The fame gained by his sports winnings led to a career as a martial arts film star, beginning in mainland China and then continuing into Hong Kong. Li acquired his screen name in 1982 in the Philippines when a publicity company thought his real name was too hard to pronounce. They likened his career to an aircraft, which likewise “takes-off” as quickly, so they placed the name Jet Li on the movie posters. Soon everybody was calling him by this new name, which was also based on the nickname, “Jet,” given to him as a young student, due to his speed and grace when training with the Beijing Wushu team. He made his debut with the 1982 film Shaolin Temple.
Li starred in the 1995 film High Risk, where Jet Li plays a Captain who becomes disillusioned after his wife is murdered by crime lords. Along the way, he pairs up with a wacky sell-out actor, Frankie (played by Jacky Cheung), and proceeds to engage in a series of violent battles in a high-rise building. The setting is similar to that of Die Hard and both their Chinese film titles. This movie is notable in that director Wong Jing had such a terrible experience working with Jackie Chan in Jing’s previous film City Hunter that he chose to make Cheung’s character a biting satire of Chan. Jet Li would later publicly apologise to Chan for taking part in it.
Li had two wuxia feature films released in 2011, The Sorcerer and the White Snake and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate; the latter was helmed by Tsui Hark. To promote tai chi, in 2012 Jet Li starred in a film titled Tai Chi and co-produced the movie with Chen Kuo-Fu. Li portrayed Tai Chi master Yang Lu-ch’an.
In 1998, he made his American film debut in Lethal Weapon 4 which also marked the first time he had ever played a villain in a film. He agreed to do Lethal Weapon 4 after the producer Joel Silver promised to give him the leading role in his next film, Romeo Must Die (2000), alongside late singer Aaliyah. The film became a box office hit. Though Li spoke very little English at the time of production, his performance as Chinese mafia hitman Wah Sing Ku was praised.
Li turned down Chow Yun-fat’s role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) because he promised his wife that he would not make any films during her pregnancy. He also turned down the role of Seraph in The Matrix trilogy, based on his belief that the role was not one which required his skills and that the films were iconic and stunning enough without adding his name to the cast list.
In 2001, he appeared in two more Hollywood films: The One, which was the first of his films with Jason Statham, and Kiss of the Dragon opposite Bridget Fonda which did moderately well at the box office. In July 2001, Li agreed to produce and star in an action film with Jackie Chan which was to be released in 2002 or 2003, but no further news of their collaboration surfaced until 2006. In 2002, the period martial arts epic film Hero was released in the Chinese market. This film was both a commercial and critical success and became the highest-grossing motion picture in Chinese film history at the time. In 2003 he reunited with producer Joel Silver for the action thriller film Cradle 2 the Grave where he starred alongside rapper DMX and fellow martial artist Mark Dacascos. In 2004, Li lent his likeness, voice and provided motion capture work for the video game Jet Li: Rise to Honor.
Li took on a more serious role in the 2005 film, Unleashed (a.k.a. Danny the Dog), where he portrayed an adult with the mentality of a child who has been raised like an animal. Although his martial arts skills were used extensively, it was a somber film with more depth than had been previously seen in Li’s films, and co-starred dramatic actors Bob Hoskins and Morgan Freeman.
In 2006, the martial arts film epic Fearless, was released worldwide. Although he will continue to make martial arts films, Fearless is his last wushu epic. In Fearless, he played Huo Yuanjia, the real-life founder of Chin Woo Athletic Association, who reportedly defeated foreign boxers and Japanese martial artists in publicised events at a time when China’s power was seen as eroding. Together with the film Fist of Legend, Li has portrayed both Chen Jun, the student and avenger of Huo Yuanjia (a.k.a. Fok Yun Gap), as well as Huo Yuanjia himself. Fearless was released on 26 January 2006 in Hong Kong, followed by a 22 September 2006 release in the United States where it reached second place in its first weekend.
Li has stated in an interview with the Shenzhen Daily newspaper that this will be his last martial arts epic, which is also stated in the film’s television promotions. However, he plans to continue his film career in other genres. Specifically, he plans to continue acting in epic action and martial arts films dealing more with religious and philosophical issues.
Li’s 2007 Hollywood film, War, was released in August of that year, and re-teamed him with actor Jason Statham, who previously starred with him in The One, and action choreographer Corey Yuen. War raked in a disappointing US$23 million at the box office, becoming one of Li’s lowest grossers in America; however, it was a hit on video, accumulating nearly US$52 million in rental revenue, more than doubling its box office take. With the exception of Romeo Must Die and the worldwide release of Hero, most of Li’s American films have been only modest hits like Kiss of the Dragon, The One, Unleashed, Cradle 2 the Grave, and the worldwide release of Fearless.
In late 2007, Li returned again to China to participate in the China/Hong Kong co-production of the period war film The Warlords with Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro. This film, with its focus on dramatics rather than martial arts, netted Li the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actor.
Li and fellow martial arts veteran Jackie Chan finally appeared together onscreen for the first time in The Forbidden Kingdom, which began filming in May 2007 and was released to critical and commercial success on 18 April 2008. The film was based on the legend of the Monkey King from the Chinese folk novel Journey to the West. Li also starred as the lead villain in the fantasy action film The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor with actors Brendan Fraser, Isabella Leong and Michelle Yeoh.
After a one-year hiatus from filmmaking, Jet Li returned to acting in 2010, portraying a mercenary in the film The Expendables, teaming up with action stars Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts, Steve Austin, Terry Crews, and Randy Couture. It was the third time he had teamed up with Statham. In 2012, he reprised his role briefly in the sequel The Expendables 2 and returned for the third film The Expendables 3 in 2014. Li was initially stated to be appearing with Vin Diesel in XXX: Return of Xander Cage, but according to a Facebook post by Diesel, Li has been replaced by Donnie Yen.